Michael Avenatti Melts Down

Mary Altaffer/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Michael Avenatti, plaintiff’s attorney, media presence and sworn enemy of all things Donald Trump, for the past year has been inflicting himself on the public via CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets. It’s part of his campaign to remove Trump from office on behalf of his star client, porn star Stormy Daniels. Yet Avenatti’s main issue for now appears to be whether he can avoid oblivion despite his receipt of online crowdfunding donations. His longtime former law firm, Eagan Avenatti LLP, received a final eviction notice last month from an Orange County, Calif. court despite bagging numerous outsized awards and verdicts. And he’s facing a costly divorce settlement and a domestic battery charge. His many enemies might be thinking that all this couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Michael Avenatti, now 47, a native of the St. Louis area, didn’t invent self-promotion within the legal profession. But it would be hard to disagree that he is taking it to a new level. Loud, abrasive and perpetually looking for trophies to hang on his wall, he rarely wastes an opportunity to publicly berate anyone taking issue with him. Avenatti is adept at making two things: enemies and headlines. His style recalls Mark Lane, the late lawyer and author of books alleging, with dubious veracity, that the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Peoples Temple (Guyana) residents were the result of vast government conspiracies. He alternately can be seen as a male version of feminist celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred. Whoever the model of comparison might be, Avenatti surely ranks with the best when it comes to exploiting the news cycle to his advantage. Major media in turn enable his drive for notoriety. Vanity Fair recently reported, for example, that he approached MSNBC President Phil Griffin about the possibility of getting his own show on the network. Avenatti disputes this, claiming it was Griffin who approached him.

Cable television news outlets just can’t get enough of Michael Avenatti. It makes sense. He makes headlines with sensational accusations; he files lawsuits with reckless abandon; and most importantly, he hates President Trump. That’s ratings gold. Avenatti shot to national stardom early this year when Stephanie Clifford aka “Stormy Daniels,” currently the world’s reigning porn star, hired him to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement she had established with Trump’s then-personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in late October 2016, a couple weeks before Election Day, concerning a sexual affair in Lake Tahoe she and Trump allegedly had a decade earlier. Cohen had provided Daniels with $130,000 as compensation, with Daniels’ then-lawyer, Keith Davidson, acting as the go-between. As National Legal and Policy Center explained at length, this “hush money,” far from being an attempt to silence Ms. Daniels, appeared to be an attempt on her part to blackmail Donald Trump. Fully aware of candidate Trump’s vulnerability – at the time he was gaining on Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the polls – Daniels knew she had enormous leverage by threatening to go public. But a funny thing happened after the money transfer: Trump was elected president. Suddenly that $130,000 looked like small change. Breaking the nondisclosure agreement could open the door to far greater riches. Trump, for his part, has denied having knowledge of the arrangement and indeed has denied having the affair itself.

When the Wall Street Journal revealed the existence of the $130,000 payment and nondisclosure agreement on January 12, 2018, Stormy Daniels became an overnight celebrity. Scrapping the settlement in favor of a more lucrative one became job number one. Her lawyer during 2016-17, Keith Davidson, wasn’t quite up to the task. What was needed, as Daniels saw it, was someone who had the will and the way to fully exploit the media potential of her alleged relationship with Trump, and as a bonus, had it in for Trump personally. After calling a number of lawyers, each taking a pass, she eventually settled on Michael Avenatti upon referral from another, unnamed attorney. Since then, Avenatti and Daniels have been virtually inseparable (see photo). Each has served as a vehicle for the other’s ambitions. She got low-cost help in seeking to cancel the agreement without giving back any money; he got a pretext to file high-profile frivolous lawsuits.

Avenatti quickly went to work. He arranged for Daniels to give a blockbuster interview with Anderson Cooper on CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes, which aired on Sunday evening, March 25. The next day, he filed two separate lawsuits, one against President Trump and Michael Cohen for invalidating the nondisclosure agreement, and the other against Cohen for defamation. Then, in April, he sued President Trump for defamation. And in June, he sued Cohen again, plus Keith Davidson, for violating attorney-client privilege. His defamation suit against Trump, based on an April 18 presidential tweet, deservedly was tossed out of Los Angeles federal court in October. Avenatti quickly filed an appeal.

Avenatti, ever resourceful in finding ways to torpedo the Trump presidency, also represented Julie Swetnick, one of several women who came out of the woodwork this past fall to accuse U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual impropriety against various teenage girls many years ago while in prep school. Swetnick specifically had charged that Kavanaugh helped organize gang rapes. The allegations proved groundless and potentially libelous. Worse, at least from the standpoint of the opposition, Avenatti’s outrageous behavior during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings swayed key undecided senators into supporting Kavanaugh, approved shortly thereafter by 50-48.

Then there is Michael Avenatti’s months-long campaign for president, which he abruptly called off on December 4. His campaign, needless to say, was difficult to take seriously even by Donald Trump-hating standards. Granted, Trump had no prior experience in government when he declared his candidacy in 2015. But at least he had negotiated countless real estate deals with public officials. And he had developed a definable issues platform. Avenatti, by contrast, had no platform, save for his loathing of Trump. He conveyed his monomania in an October 5 speech before a partisan audience at a suburban Cincinnati union hall. “Some of you may be asking, what is some porn lawyer doing here in Cincinnati talking to us about our republic?” he asked the crowd. “Well, in normal times, I’d be in L.A. enjoying my life. But these are not normal times.” Avenatti was confident that the voters were on his side. “There’s no question I can beat him in a general election,” he said. “A lot of people say that’s arrogant. I say it. I believe it. Donald Trump wants to run against other nominees. I don’t think he wants to run against me.” He also demanded that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who cast the crucial vote in support of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, vacate her seat. “This woman should be thrown out of office,” he declared. “She’s a disgrace. She had the audacity to attack my client [Julie Swetnick], who risked her life to allege what she alleged.” This is rubbish. Ms. Swetnick risked nothing by going public with her patently false assertions. And Senator Collins did not “attack” Swetnick, but simply chose not to believe her.

All these projects have required money. And money is something apparently in short supply lately. Avenatti’s erstwhile Newport Beach, Calif.-based law firm, Eagan Avenatti LLP, to date has generated more than $400 million in settlements and verdicts, though some of the cases resulted in substantial reductions on appeal. But as he says, these are not normal times. In October, the firm was ordered to vacate its main office for nonpayment of four months of rent totaling over $213,000. On Friday, November 16, an Orange County Superior Court judge affirmed the eviction notice and ordered all personnel out of the building by the following Monday. Avenatti, quick to spin bad news, told the Los Angeles Times that the order “does not matter” because the firm “was already in the process of moving.” Such a claim strains the imagination. No rational law firm, regardless of moving plans, has any interest in skipping rent. Not only would it owe penalties in addition to back rent, it also would suffer a loss of professional reputation.

It is strange, to say the least, that Eagan Avenatti LLP, despite having acquired a fearsome reputation for litigiousness, can’t pay for the roof over its head. Did Avenatti or some other person at the firm embezzle any of the money? We don’t know. But it’s worth finding out. A powerful law firm doesn’t just get evicted from its own main office. The firm was so tapped out by last year, in fact, that a low-level contractor, Gerald Tobin, filed an involuntary bankruptcy suit for $28,700 to recover the value of unspecified services rendered. Tobin, a Florida-based career criminal, and the firm eventually reached an out-of-court settlement.

Michael Avenatti’s financial situation isn’t about to get any easier. On October 22, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dennis Landin ordered him to pay $4.85 million to Jason Frank, a former attorney at Eagan Avenatti, out of his own personal funds. This sum is in addition to the $10 million that a U.S. bankruptcy court had ordered the firm in May to pay Mr. Frank. The ex-colleague had alleged that the Eagan Avenatti had misstated its profits, and that he was owed millions. Michael Avenatti countered that only does he not owe Frank, but that Frank owes the firm $12 million. Strangely, Avenatti never filed arguments in that case. One would think that a potential $12 million payday is worth showing up for. If that weren’t enough, this July the U.S. Justice Department accused Avenatti of misrepresenting facts in that case, and ruled that the firm owed $440,000 in back federal taxes.

Representing Stormy Daniels requires serious outside money given her apparent lack of it. Web-based crowdfunding might be the answer to his prayers. That’s a very big “might.” Appealing for funds, Avenatti tweeted on June 4, 2018: “This promises to be a very busy week but our effort does not run itself. There are numerous expenses associated with cases like this and here, security costs alone are astronomical. We are short of our goal and need some help. Please go to crowdjustice.com/case/stormy/ #Basta.” As of that afternoon, the crowdfunding page had received about $543,600 of its $850,000 goal, with 11 days to go. He insists that aside from compensation received from Ms. Daniels, this is the sole source of funds for their case. In response to an assertion by a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, Avenatti blasted away. “No political party of PAC is funding this effort,” he said. “No left-wing conspiracy group is behind this. And no big fat cat political donors are leading the charge. Get over it.” Three days earlier, Avenatti asserted that he had turned down $200,000 from anti-Trump Republican Party donors and denied reports that he personally had reached out to Democratic Party operatives for money.

Yet this statement contradicts evidence elsewhere. According to a pair of anonymous sources interviewed a half-year ago by the New York Times, Avenatti contacted Bradley Beychok, president of American Bridge, a super PAC founded by liberal activist David Brock, in appealing for donations. Someone affiliated with Avenatti’s former law firm reportedly had reached out to two unnamed Democratic donors on Avenatti’s behalf for $2 million. In the end, American Bridge decided against making donations, believing the money would be better spent elsewhere.

Stormy Daniels herself is now a skeptic of Avenatti. In an interview with the Daily Beast published November 28, she accused him of failing to account for all the funds that he raised on her behalf and of not treating her with “the respect and deference an attorney should show to a client.” She elaborated: “For months I’ve asked Michael Avenatti to give me accounting information about my fund my supporters so generously donated to for my safety and legal defense. He has repeatedly ignored those requests.” She also said that Avenatti has “spoken on my behalf without my approval.” Indeed, Daniels accused Avenatti of filing the defamation suit against President Trump – the one thrown out of federal court in October – against her wishes. Even if this strange power couple patches things up, they appear headed for a parting of ways. That evening, CrowdJustice.com removed a new page that Avenatti had launched for raising funds for her forthcoming court battle with President Donald Trump and former lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen.

Michael Avenatti and his second wife, Lisa Storie-Avenatti, already have parted ways. And it’s going to be very expensive for him. Last month, according to records obtained by TMZ, an Orange County judge ordered Avenatti to pay her $162,295 per month in child and spousal support, a sum retroactive to January 1, 2018. He’ll also have to part with marital assets such as a 2017 Ferrari 488 GT Spider worth $300,000, five luxury wristwatches a few of which retail for more than $50,000, and several pieces of high-priced art. His current firm, Avenatti & Associates, also will have to fork over its stake in a 2016 Honda private jet. The couple had married in 2011 and separated last December. They have one son together. Avenatti also has two teenage daughters from his first marriage to Christine Avenatti-Carlin. Avenatti’s second wife, for the time being, will get to live in their $19 million Newport Beach mansion, while he will have to make do in his $14,000 per month apartment.

Arguably more damaging to Avenatti’s fortunes, however, is his apparently violent behavior toward at least one woman. On November 14, he was arrested for felony domestic violence against a woman later identified as his girlfriend, actress Mareli Miniutti, the previous night. According to Ms. Miniutti’s complaint, Avenatti assaulted her inside their high-rise Los Angeles apartment after a dispute over – what else? – money. Hours later, Avenatti was released from jail after posting bail. He struck a defiant pose by calling the allegation “completely bogus.” “I have never struck a woman and I will never strike a woman,” Avenatti told reporters, emphasizing that he is an “advocate” for women’s rights.

The facts, as reported, suggests that women should exercise their right to duck and cover when in his presence. In a sworn declaration obtained by the New York Times, Ms. Miniutti said that she and Avenatti had dated from October 2017 until November 13, 2018, the night of their fateful row. Mr. Avenatti allegedly had peppered Miniutti with extreme verbal abuse, whereupon she went to a guest room to sleep alone. Avenatti then followed her into the room and began “forcefully” hitting her in the face with pillows. At that point, said his girlfriend, he “grabbed my right arm and dragged me out of the bed.” This might not have been the first time Avenatti’s anger had gotten out of control with Ms. Miniutti. Back in February, he pushed her out of an apartment and into the hallway. The November incident was the last straw for Mareli Miniutti. Several days later, she obtained a temporary restraining order barring him from further contact until the hearing, set for today, December 10.

Both of Michael Avenatti’s former wives have issued statements since his arrest asserting that he was never physically violent with them during the course of their marriages. That said, his second wife has noted that he “is hot-tempered and used to having his way – when he doesn’t, he gets extremely loud and verbally aggressive.” That seems to be his standard operating procedure in handling disputes with just about everyone.

It’s hard to work up much sympathy for Michael Avenatti. A walking embodiment of the high-strung, go-for-the-throat plaintiff’s lawyer, he’s achieved fame and fortune by suing people on highly spurious grounds. Using our legal system to advance an “us versus them” hard-Left populism, he’s the brassy equivalent of the genteel Southerner, John Edwards, who also made a fortune as a populist plaintiff’s attorney before going into politics. Under the guise of fighting for the rights of underdogs, Avenatti displays a loutish, pitiless contempt for anyone who criticizes him. Needless to say, he is not going to be elected president in November 2020. But there are a lot of questions about how he is going about undermining the current president.

Postscript: On December 11, the day after the posting of this article, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero ordered Stormy Daniels to pay President Trump $293,052.33 in attorney’s fees related to her defamation case, which Judge Otero had thrown out in October. Writing that Trump’s lawyers had spent “excessive” time on the case, Otero ordered Daniels to pay about 75 percent of the president’s legal bills, plus an additional $1,000 in sanctions. Michael Avenatti now has even more reason to crank up his crowdfunding campaigns. He also might consider withdrawing his appeal in the case, which is unrelated to Ms. Daniels’ still-active suit against Trump and his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to void the nondisclosure agreement.